I was listening to my music stored on my phone at the gym recently, and the song Centerfield by John Fogarty popped up through the random shuffle of nearly 2000 songs. As a baseball fan, this was a particularly upbeat tune for me, but this time, I began to cry. It reminded me of Dave.
When I first began teaching at the college level at a proprietary technical school, I was fairly young. I only had a Bachelor’s Degree and a few years of programming experience. As I was only a few years older than many of my students, I identified with them more than I did many of my colleagues. One such student was a fellow named Dave.
Dave was quick study from a blue-collar family in Staten Island, across the Arthur Kill from our Central New Jersey campus. He had strange hair that grew straight, but wouldn’t lie down. It was kind of like one of those early fiber optic lamps. Dave was the youngest of three boys, all of whom were baseball players in High School. This came up during frequent discussions of sports after class with Dave and some of the other fellows. Like myself, Dave was an avid Mets fan, and hatred of the Yankees is as good a thing to bond over as any.
I taught primarily morning classes so we both finished some of our days at 1:00PM. Occasionally, some of us would go out to a local park and have a little pick-up football or basketball game. We also occupied the same computer lab for eight hours per week. While much of the time was spent assisting students, there was also time to discuss football pools or the sports news of the day. Once, we arranged a full eleven on eleven tackle football game between the morning and afternoon programming cohorts at a nearby field.
My school also had extremely discounted tickets to local professional sporting events. Dave would go often with me to Rangers, Devils, Nets and Knicks games for five dollars through the Student Services Department. As a faculty member, I had to wait until game day to determine that there were any student tickets left. I got to know Dave as a bright and genial guy who had similar interests to my own. When softball season rolled around, I had an opportunity to learn much more.
Our school softball team played in an industrial league in Middlesex County, New Jersey. There were teams from Hess Oil, a large bakery, an industrial linen service, and several other factory types. Our team was made up of computer and electronics students. We were coached by a professor who also worked as an umpire on the side. I took on the role as Assistant Coach both so I could play, and so I could fill in if our coach couldn’t show.
Dave played first base. He was left-handed, which limited him elsewhere in the infield and he had played there in High School. Most softball teams placed their most hulking defensive liability at first base, but Dave knew what he was doing. I kind of filled in whatever position was needed. I caught, pitched, and played second and third. We had a pretty competitive team, coming in second to one of the Hess teams three years in a row. We usually forfeited a game or two during our school’s spring/summer break by having too many players out of town.
Dave and I had similar interests as students of the game, and were able to discuss strategy even at this level. When catching, I would run up the first base line on a ground ball in case the ball got away from the first basemen, a rarity in Dave’s case. Most teammates considered it excessive showboating and unnecessary at this level. Dave always said to ignore them. It came in handy once in a game we were winning in the last inning when Dave failed to scoop a bad throw. I caught the ball on the one hop off of the chain link fence behind first and threw the batter out at second to preserve the win. Dave gave me a nod and a smile. Whether in programming or sports, he loved when a strategy worked.
We also played in a few softball tournaments over the springtime. Dave drove me to one tournament and I complimented him on how careful and sedate of a driver he was for a young male. That same day, while heading to grab some lunch between games, Dave pulled from the curb and we were both immediately startled by a crash and the sight of a leather-clad individual flying over the hood of Dave’s car. It seems there was a motorcycle zipping down the road and Dave just didn’t see him. The bike hit just in front of Dave’s left, front tire. The bike went down, but the driver’s momentum sent him over the car. He landed in the street and immediately got up hopping on one foot. He was screaming many expletives, but mostly referring to himself as “I’m f***ed.” The police came almost immediately. It seems that the young man taken his brother’s motorcycle without permission and was an unlicensed driver, to boot. The police serendipitously took the young man away and had his bike towed. Dave never even received a police report. As the police took the kid away, he was screaming the he would find us and get us. We stood on the curb holding our arms across the logo on our jerseys.
Dave had a house down at the Jersey Shore for a week that summer and I popped down for a day to hang out. Before heading to the beach, I noticed he had a dartboard on the wall, and being a competitive male, I challenged him to a game. I threw on dart that bounced off of the board and fell. Immediately, Dave announced, “That’s a flaw.” It seemed to me an odd thing to say, so I assumed it was some sort of House Rule Dart colloquialism. Letter, the same thing happened to one of his darts, so I said, “It’s a flaw.” Immediately, Dave said incredulously, “Not flaw, flaw”. Now it was my turn to be confused. I said, “That’s what I said, flaw.” Dave points to the floor in his best Staten Island accent and says, “No, Floor.” They sounded identical to me.
The following spring of 1985, we had the idea to go to Mets opening day. The team had shown some promise after a decade of mediocrity. Actually, mediocrity might be too generous. Gary Carter had joined the team and there was enthusiasm in the air. I went with a group of about eight or ten students. It was cold and windy and the game, of course, went into extra innings. One idiot student tried to roll a joint during the game and most of his stash blew away. Dave and I discussed this. I never partook, but have heard that if you go to the hard rock laser show at the planetarium, the high can make the musical experience richer and the laser show more intense. Dave speculated that the kid was trying to turn singles into doubles or triples. When Gary Carter hit a game winning home run in the tenth, Dave and I rejoiced and felt cold no more.
I guess playing football, basketball, and softball wasn’t enough. One winter, Dave talked me into running a hockey club in order to get the school to pay for the ice time. We played in a semi-enclosed rink in the middle of the winter. Our ice time was from 2:00AM to 3:00AM. There wasn’t much we wouldn’t do to get our sports fix.
As the years went by, Dave continued his education successfully, and I probably had him in half a dozen courses. I went to his graduation and subsequent party at his house. I came to know his parents and brothers. I continued to be a friend and a council to him through his first few jobs, his marriage, the purchase of his first home, and the birth of his children. During this time, we joined an adult baseball league together for a season. It is here were I miss Dave the most. I had played years of softball and many other sports, but missed out on the opportunity to play organized baseball. I predated the current system of Little League where everyone who signs up gets to play. When I was six, I went to a tryout and saw three pitches. I knew no coaches, nor was my dad a cop or fireman in town. According to my mother, I could only play if she agreed to sell hot dogs in the concession stand, something she was unwilling to do.
Dave told me of this adult league and we joined together. He played first and I predominantly played second. This was new to me and Dave had an opportunity to mentor me rather than the other way around. For example, the first two times we had a ground ball to short with an opposing runner on first, I correctly made the pivot for the force at second, but failed to complete the relay to first. Dave told me quietly that I would have had the runner, but I felt that the opposite was true. Dave sensed that I was nervous about throwing the ball away throwing while spinning around and he was right. He told me to trust that he would get to the ball, and that I should let it fly. After that, I always did just that and he was right. While he did save me by plucking one out of the dirt now and again, most of my throws were in time and on target. You cannot imagine how great it feels to “turn two” in and actual ball game on an actual field.
At the end of the season, we found ourselves in the championship game playing the only team to beat us that season. We lost to them twice and they were pretty obnoxious about it. We played them to a low scoring tie through nine innings. I was on the bench and when we failed to score in the top of the tenth, our pitcher, who did all we could asked was shot. He gave up a triple to the first batter and stood on the mound with his arms extended. We knew he was done. With no other options, Dave offered to pitch. As a lefty, at least as he could give them a different look. I called the captain to the bench while Dave was warming up and told him that the book says to walk the bases loaded in this situation and create a force at the plate since a fly ball ends the game anyway. He agreed and Dave intentionally walked the next two batters. Now the season was on truly on the line. Dave threw one pitch. It got away from him and hit the batter in the foot. The game and season was over. My strategy and Dave’s pitching had failed. The funny thing was that we immediately laughed about it. We had all done as much as we could and had an absolute blast doing it. Dave was a man in full. We were peers in every respect.
During all of the driving to games and tournaments, the song Centerfield (released in January of 1985) got a lot of airplay. Anytime it came on the radio in Dave’s car or mine, we would sing along at the top of our lungs. We were just happy to be young and playing ball.
Dave roped me into doing a fantasy baseball league with him one year. As a baseball junkie and a stat head, this seemed right up my alley, but for some reason, it never got my juices flowing. I did enjoy the ability to stay in touch with Dave, the professional, and to give us more opportunity to discuss baseball.
A few years later, I moved with my family to Florida. Between careers and family and distance, Dave and I lost touch. I would think of him often, particularly when doing something that he and I did together. I also had a rich batch of stories I would relate about some of our antics together. After several years, I heard from a friend who ran into another friend who knew Dave. Someone had heard something about cancer. I reached out to Dave who told me that he was having some gastric issues and went for a colonoscopy. The test revealed a large tumor in his abdomen and that cancer had metastasized into several bad places. He said it was stage four, but he was 47 years old and fit and was hopeful.
I occasionally tried to reach him over the next ten months, but it was obvious he had his hands full. I was connected to him via Facebook. I was able to learn that he was divorced, but still extremely active with his kids. Facebook was an odd one-way window into Dave’s last year. His parents were gone, but his brothers and extended family were perpetually supporting him and by his side. He fell in love with a woman who obviously cared for him beyond words. They married only days before Dave passed a little over a year ago. I have wanted to contact her for the past year, just to share with her what Dave meant to me. Even though we never met, we shared time with a wonderful person, and I suppose that were we to share with each other, however briefly, it might buy us each a few more minutes with Dave.
“Put me in, Coach. I’m ready to play.”
© Copyright 2014 – Robert O’Connell. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Robert O’Connell with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
Bob O’Connell is the author of Flash Mob, a comedy-romance-mystery set in Montclair, New Jersey. He is a career educator and humorist. He has three children and currently lives with his wife in South Florida. You can find his book through www.flashmobthenovel.com.